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Why Your Papers Suck! / 16 октября 2007 г.

Nick Olivari, a young Toronto journalist, looks at his daily papers and wonders when they will begin to cater to his new generation of readers.

Copyright © News Design Associates Inc.

I’m a Generation Xer, one of few, perhaps, who fondly remembers the days when home seemed to be filled with family members reading newspapers. I decided that I wanted to be a journalist almost as soon as I could understand the allure of ink on newsprint. Now my enthusiasm is waning. Things are different, times are changing. But newspapers aren’t.

Today, in fact, the whole idea of having a newspaper delivered to my doorstep seems quaint and old-fashioned. And unnecessary. I don’t have to wait 12 hours for the headlines — I get news almost instantaneously from the AP wire on Compuserve, I read features on the Internet and find just about everything else I need on CNN.

I’m fortunate that my journalistic lifestyle supports my habit — but there’s an awful realization that if newspapers are losing their meaning to the people who produce them, whatever will happen when ordinary readers catch on? Well, in case you haven’t noticed, the revolution has started. I can’t even be sure when it happened, but I know that in the age of MTV and rapid-fire youth culture with their what’shot- and-what’s-not feel to everything, newspapers have rapidly become perceived by my generation as dull and irrelevant.

The commercial press is still writing for my grandfather and the products look as dull as the content — sedate and out-of-date. This may appease stodgy boards of newspaper directors but does nothing for my youthful cohorts or me.

When we can get our news and entertainment — with heavy emphasis on the latter — in four minutes of video and high-velocity graphics, why on earth would we GenXers want to read a newspaper, anyway?

The answer may surprise you.

Yes, we do read newspapers. But not yours. Not the dull broadsheets. Not even the racier, down-market tabloids. Why would we? Strip away the veneer and scratch the social and political surfaces beneath, and they’re the same anyway.

You’ll find us spending our reading time with our noses intently stuck in the smaller, brighter and less self-conscious pages of the alternative press. When we’re not immersed in cyberspace, that is.

My neighbors, young, vibrant and alive, avidly devour their weekly copies of Toronto’s alternative news and entertainment voices — eye and Now —not just because they’re free, but because we can relate to them. They have a meaning.

Their front pages look more like the clothes combinations we’d like to wear to work, and, although the content is still heavy on the news of our times such as ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, famines in Africa and big brother increasing our taxes to pay for new police uniforms, the articles are written by young people for young people.

No one pulls any punches, and if investigations get rough or the language gets a bit earthy, or someone actually has an unpopular opinion, so be it. And, if there’s a flood of hate mail the next week, it’s regarded as applause because it proves that people are reading the paper. In contrast, up at the boring end of the spectrum, mainstream newsrooms are full of middle-class hacks-with-spouses-in-a-good-job-andlive-in-nannies-and-almost-paid-mortgages-and-holiday-cottages- and-two-children-at-college, who’ve lost touch with what it is to be or feel young — or free.

Can you imagine how difficult it is for reporters from these papers to gain the trust of someone wearing ripped jeans and with a stud through their nose, especially when their papers insist on a formal dress code.? If you can see the futility in that scenario, just imagine the problems when newspapers expect meaningful insights into the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels while expecting reporters to dress in the manner of what the Angels might mockingly term “A Citizen.”

Another joke to we GenXers is that if you want to be employed in the newspaper market you will need at least one university degree — more if there are 100 applicants for every job. But don’t editors know that the vast majority of people for whom we write possess only a secondary education? With a university degree and a middle-class background, how can a writer’s understanding of events ever reflect that of someone who sees the world through a truck window or from behind a dry cleaning press — no matter how sympathetic the writer is personally, politically or socially.

Likewise it’s hard for someone facing several bouts of enforced idleness in their life — a reality for most youth today — to connect with a story on unemployment written by a journalist who’s clearly never been through the agony and indignity of the dole line.

It’s equally galling to read middle-aged hacks ranting about how young, unmarried mothers should stop relying on the government for paltry handouts, especially when those same hacks studiously ignore the slurping sounds of big business lunching greedily at their much-larger public troughs.

You could argue that a good journalist should always remain detached from reporting and stick to the facts. But there are a great many issues common to anyone between the ages of 18 and 30 that someone of an earlier generation will never understand or even perceive as a newspoint.

Deciding what copy is relevant to an adult under 30, and who should write it, will only ever be half the solution because, like any other product, it’s the packaging that makes the sale.

While policymakers debate the limits of good taste and worry how graphic pictures should be, my generation and the two that followed have already been profoundly affected. No one I know blinked through Quentin Tarantino’s movie Reservoir Dogs,which was drenched in blood, blood and more blood. It shocked our elders, but not us.

So what? We see blood at the movies, on TV, in videos and in professional sports. It’s going to take a particularly shocking photograph to offend us. In this era of multi-media, only the unborn can be spared.

More pertinent is the subject of photographic choice and presentation in newspapers. Too often pictures are chosen for their appeal to the Mahogany Rows of the world without thought to their children.

Photos of the geriatric Rolling Stones, for example, are a front-page staple wherever they tour, but while the dinosaurs of rock are still big news in the daily papers, teenagers cruising the local band scene couldn’t give a toss about the concert Daddy attended last night.

They have their own tastes, which are either ignored for being too vulgar, or they’re dumped into a pathetic pull-out youth section planned by someone — obviously with children of his or her own — who’s theoretically in touch with what’s happening. And then they wonder why young people won’t read it!

Face it, with the aid of cable and satellite TV, today’s teens have become more discerning consumers of good photography than their parents ever were. Rock videos and popculture publicity stills are a borderline art form and what every teen will later use as a benchmark for an interesting picture.

And the images do not look like those that every newspaper photographer knows will make his stereotypically middle-aged WASP news editor happy.

Nor are the graphics and color use in today’s papers relevant to kids who have already been dosed with several thousand hours of garishly colored videoarcade games by the time they reach puberty.

When USA Today was launched it seemed the television generation breathed a collective sigh of relief over a paper that looked and read like a TV screen. But TV’s old hat. Didn’t you know? Today’s children attend computer courses from age five, design a web page at 12, and — unlike their parents — find it easier to read from a computer screen than an unwieldy newspaper.

Anyone who spends time on the Internet will tell you that reading text from multi-colored backgrounds with individual words highlighted in bright blue and shocking lime green soon becomes second nature and makes the conventional newspaper look archaic.

And while traditionalists will argue that blue headlines or key words emphasized in color within standard black text won’t work, one international direct-marketing firm exploring the sales potential of the web has already designed its current brochure like an Internet home page.

Yes, it does work. But the big question remains, how will newspapers prevent the continued fall in readership and particularly attract young readers back to the fold? Perhaps they can’t do it. I’m not sure they have the will.

Nick Olivari was a Toronto-based freelance writer when he wrote this story. He now has a full-time job in New York City with Reuters press agency.

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